Friday, March 09, 2018

China may hold trump card in Trump trade war

On Thursday 8th March 2018 the US President Donald Trump signed an order which pushes forward a plan for 25% tariffs on imports of steel and a 10% tariff on aluminium.

Trump claims it is all about protecting American jobs and to stop cheap foreign steel imports being dumped in the US. But while his motives might be laudable his methods could well spark a trade war which could damage not only the US but slow the global economy which could in turn precipitate another global recession [Guardian].

There is no nation that is 100% self sufficient. Globalisation has made every country reliant on another. But some nations are more resilient than others. The more developed a nation is the greater its susceptibility to a disruption of imports of raw materials, agricultural products or energy supplies.

Fiery rhetoric

In a recent tweet Trump proclaimed that "trade wars are good, and easy to win". But he was immediately slapped down by European Council President Donald Tusk who said the very opposite was true.

"President Trump has recently said and I quote, 'trade wars are good and easy to win.' But the truth is quite the opposite. Trade wars are bad and easy to lose," Tusk told a press conference in Luxembourg [RTE / Guardian].

As the EU drew up a list of products which might have increased tariffs upon them Trump merely retorted that he would respond in kind.

After Trump announced he would impose tariffs on steel and aluminium the EU suggested it might impose tariffs on US imports such as Harley-Davidson motorbikes, Levi's jeans and Kentucky bourbon whiskey [Bloomberg]. Trump then responded saying tariffs could be extended to European cars. The EU's list then grew to include peanut butter, cranberry and orange juice [BBC].

Waking the dragon

But this tit for tat reaction will be nothing compared to the trade war that could break out between the US and China.

There has been much talk over China's dumping of steel on world markets. This is certainly an issue and China should arguably be taken to task. However, Trump's methodology could unleash a hornets nest. And at the very least could be described as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

China might not be able to bring the US down but it could seriously damage the US economy. That said there are many myths surrounding the economic relationship between the United States and China.

The fact that China has become the largest foreign holder of US government securities is often taken as indicating that the United States is heavily dependent on China to finance its budget deficits. Similarly, since China is a major source for US imports, US consumers are seen as dependent on cheap Chinese goods.

Dumping its US government securities could cause problems as much for China as it might for the US [CFR].

However while the average consumer may not be affected if cheap imports of clothes and toys were to dry up there are some imports that are far more vital to the US.

There is much interconnectedness between China and the US [Business Insider]. Some is economic and some has to do with manufacturing.

One particular concern for some in in the US is whether China could pull out the rug from the US technology industry.

Rare earth reliance

Apple and other tech firms have relocated to China and any disruption to this supply chain could hurt the US [Bloomberg]. But this is just the tip of the technological iceberg.

China supplies much of the world's so-called rare earths, elements such as lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, gadolinium, yttrium, terbium, europium [BBC / Wikipedia]. Despite their name, most are abundant in nature but are hazardous to extract [BBC]. Thus many countries have significantly reduced their mining operations on environmental grounds leaving China as one of the few countries to corner the market.

But why are rare earths important? Rare earths are a big part of our modern world.  They are in clean energy technologies like wind turbines and solar cells and in many things we use everyday such as cars, cell phones, computers and televisions. Without dyprosiumif there might be no smartphones or MRI scans [].  

But the biggest concern for the US is the fact that many rare earths are necessary for high-performance guidance systems. US military technologies such as guided bombs and night vision rely heavily upon rare earth elements supplied by China, and rebuilding an independent US supply chain to wean the country off foreign dependency could take up to 15 years, according to a 2010 report published by the US Government Accountability Office [GAO report PDF] [Live Science].

No instant fix

Some 7 years after that report was published and the US is still very much reliant on China to supply these resources [Investor Intel], although another GAO report skims over US reliance on China [GAO report 2016 PDF]

In December 2017 Trump signed an executive order intended to reduce the United States' reliance on other countries for rare earth supplies. But this will be no instant fix. Even Trump's intended shift to buy from other countries such as Australia where companies like Lynas Corp have been mining for nearly two decades is unlikely to fill any gaps left should Chinese rare earth supplies dry up [Bloomberg].

Indeed it could be years before the US becomes self sufficient. In 2016, the US was reliant on imports for 23 minerals including cobalt, lithium, graphite and rare-earth elements, according to a report released this last year by the Interior Department. The country was most reliant on China, which supplied the world's biggest economy with at least 20 critical minerals, the report said.

And this is where China could bite back hard should Trump make things difficult in a trade war.

Past form

It won't be the first time China has used its mining and supply of rare earths as leverage. In late 2009 and throughout 2010, at a time when China produced 97% of the world's rare earths, China tightened its grip on exports [FT / NYT / tvnewswatch - China tightens up on rare earths Oct 2010]

China has already accused Trump of risking a global trade war and says it will retaliate [Sky News]. In a statement China described Trump's decision to levy a 25% surcharge on steel and 10% on aluminium as a "serious attack on normal international trade order".

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan said the move would have a "big impact" on its close relations with the US while South Korea said it may file a complaint with the World Trade Organisation.

Beijing has not yet said how it might react, only that it would "firmly defend its legitimate rights and interests".

China has not mentioned any increased tariffs or block on exports. Indeed only commentators have even mentioned rare earths as being China's secret weapon [Reuters / CNN / ATimes].

Should a prolonged trade war break out and China block rare earth exports then the US could conceivably find itself in a very difficult position.

Recession & war

World Trade Organization Director General Roberto Azevêdo recently said that the "potential for escalation is real, as we have seen from the initial responses of others. A trade war is in no one's interests. The WTO will be watching the situation very closely."

The European Council President Donald Tusk was right to say that trade wars are bad and easy to lose. But he could also added that Trump's trade war could end with more than economic conflict.

The lesson of history is clear. Trade wars have no winners. And they are certainly not good. They can damage the economies of all countries involved, raising tensions and increasing the risk of international conflict.

Most people living today won't remember the last trade war which is blamed for worsening the pain of the Great Depression [CNN / Fortune]. That in turn helped to foster the political extremism that led to World War Two.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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